I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb (2013)

4 STARS

i am malala
Image from Amazon

For those of you who don’t know, the “with Christina Lamb” means that Christina Lamb is Malala’s ghost-writer.

Full Title:
I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education and was Shot by the Taliban

Quite a self-explanatory title.

I know it’s difficult to have a review for a nonfiction book. But I’ll do it, anyways.

Since I know that the majority of you probably clicked on this to gain a moderate knowledge of Malala herself, I’ll briefly educate you here so that you can get on with your non-book-review-reading lives:

Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani girl, currently about 17 or 18 years old, who grew up in a valley called Swat. After a tragic earthquake, the Taliban (a terror group that the US sponsored years ago to combat the Soviet Union when it invaded neighboring Afganistan) came to the valley to help with repairs. People welcomed them with open arms, and soon the Taliban were spewing out all kinds of propaganda. They are fundamentalist Muslims who cracked down on women’s freedom, secularism, and what they saw as Western ways in the valley of Swat. Malala’s father and his friend openly spoke out against the Taliban because they were trying to stop all Western-style education, such as chemistry or English, while he was a school owner and teacher. When the Taliban outlawed girls’ education, Malala’s father encouraged her to continue attending school. Soon some reporters asked the girls of her school to write anonymous journals about their illicit schooling, an offer that only Malala took. However, war broke out between the Taliban and the Pakistani army, and Malala’s family was evacuated. When they returned, they were told the Taliban had been entirely removed from the valley. Since conditions were still bad and the valley was in an economic slump, Malala and her father now actively spoke out against the Taliban, who were still active in other regions. Malala was targeted by the Taliban for “spreading secularism” and shot coming home from school one day, along with two other girls. She was rushed off to Pakistan’s finest hospital and briefly stabilized, but when her conditions worsened she had to be airlifted to the UK for better treatment. Her family has lived there ever since out of fear of extremists, but they long to one day return to Swat.

Now onto the review.

The odd thing about all biographies and most non-fiction books (that aren’t textbooks) that I’ve read is that they seem unorganized. Granted, this is because these books are never organized in chronological order, nor are they organized according to different aspect of the story. This being said, the first few chapters of I Am Malala skip around between all of Pakistan’s history, the valley’s culture, Malala’s family history, and Malala’s early childhood. I found this confusing, especially when trying to keep all the unfamiliar Pakistani names straight. However, I Am Malala executes this better than most biographies I’ve read for a couple of reasons. First of all, this haphazard writing only lasts for the first part of the book. Second of all, the book does a good job of reviewing what it’s already told us. If it mentioned Prime Minister Bhutto in a paragraph in chapter 2, it reminds you of who she is and why she’s important the next time that she’s mentioned. While Pakistan’s history seemed muddled in the beginning, it kept my mind on track later with phrases like “since it was the Americans who empowered the Taliban in the first place”, or “as the first Prime Minister after the 1947 partition”. So while this lack of structure irked me in the beginning, I understand why it’s necessary to not coral all these elements into separate chapters, and the book does a good job of it.

Again on the topic or organization, I hate it when books stuff all of their pictures onto a few pages right in the middle of the book, back to back. If someone is mentioned in Chapter 3, I don’t really care about seeing his picture by the time I get to chapter 8. And in this book, there were pictures halfway through the book of events that hadn’t yet been mentioned in print. Sigh. Spoilers.

The first few chapters describe the culture of Swat, the valley in which Malala was born and where she lived until recent years. I LOVE how the culture is described. This is one of the book’s greatest strengths: it’s clarity in all kinds of different aspects. It knows just how to describe culture in a folkloric way and then switch to personal narrative and then switch to an easily-understood history lesson all on the same page. So in addition to being informative, the book was MASTERFUL in its descriptions of Pashtun culture (Malala’s family is part of the Pashto clan, an ethnic group that is spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan). I love their two-line poems, their legends, their important figures, their customs. I love it all. And I honestly wasn’t expecting to learn about it in this book.

How about the peoples’ stories? The book describes the life stories of several people, not just Malala. In fact, Malala’s story isn’t really described; it’s shown throughout the book and not just told in one paragraph. A lot of the people in this book are really inspirational. I know I can’t really praise the author on conceiving them, since this all really happened, but this is probably my favorite part about the book. Just knowing how these people went from poor to rich, rich to poor, cowardly to brave, living on a literal garbage heap to attending boarding school, turning from a religious extremist to a secular women’s rights advocate (spoiler: Malala’s father was once a religious extremist, but that was before terror bombings). Their changes in circumstance are really interesting.

I always thought it was incredible that a girl my age could be so brave. But in fact, Malala knew lots of girls who would have done the same as her, but whose parents wouldn’t approve of such actions.  And Malala’s family was certain that it wasn’t her that was in danger; they thought, if anything, her father would be targeted. But he was already speaking out. And Malala was originally anonymous! I’m not saying she’s not brave. I’m not saying that at all. But the book does a good job of reminding me that hard times bring out the brave side of people. It’s her father’s story of having a stutter and overcoming it that reminds me that some of the best orators were once shy with stage fright. It’s Malala’s story about stealing jewelry that reminds me that people make mistakes, but they can overcome them. Malala wasn’t just born fighting for women’s rights; Swat culture is a lot more lenient towards women than the Taliban are (and I mean A LOT). It was her father that always told her she had the right to an education. It was her father that treated her as an equal to her brothers from the minute she was born. The situations these people went through are incredible! And every word of it is true and believable.

After the point in time when the earthquake hits Swat, the book becomes more focused. It tends to dwell less on backstory or exposition and more on what’s chronologically happening in the family’s life. The events happen in order and follow a common theme (politics and family life, not culture or history), so it becomes a lot easier to follow.

There’s not much else to say about the book. I love how honest Malala is, admitting mistakes and in some cases admitting behavior that not everyone would find that charming (for instance, occasionally teasing her brother in a book that millions of people are going to read). I suppose there’s only one thing I want to say:

PAKISTAN HAD A FEMALE PRIME MINISTER BEFORE THE U.S. DID?!?!?
Pakistan? Pakistan!
Sometimes there are incongruities in life.
Or, sometimes, we let our prejudices get the better of us. I formally apologize to Pakistan for being so shocked at your progressive attitudes.

I ABSOLUTELY recommend reading this book. I’m adding it to my list of favorite books of all time. This book made me cry, one of two books to ever do that. I didn’t cry during the 8th Harry Potter movie, so the idea that a book (which doesn’t have sad music or gore in it) can make me cry is pretty darn impressive. Don’t get the wrong idea; the book isn’t sad. But it has powerful emotional moments. I never once disagreed with the tone that Malala took towards the events being described. Every moment of it was understandable, and you can really feel what’s going on. That’s more important than most would realize at first glance. I often have trouble comprehending that books like this actually happened. Here, I have no trouble whatsoever.

Also, donate to the Malala Fund. You can enter any amount you want. And trust me, a little bit of money can go a long way in these situations.

Anyone have an inspirational personal story to share? Interesting family history? Two line poems? Any questions, comments, or concerns are welcome and appreciated.

I am definitely using two-line poems in my books now. Much easier and more powerful than trying to write a sonnet.

 


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